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Upbeat talk on label’s sale

Special to The Times

Not everybody is mourning the imminent absorption of DreamWorks Records into Universal Music Group’s Interscope Records. .

DreamWorks, headed by former Warner Bros. Records icons Mo Ostin and Lenny Waronker, earned a reputation during its seven-plus years in business as a haven for such respected but non-blockbuster sellers as the late Elliott Smith and Rufus Wainwright, while also breaking such hit acts as Nelly Furtado and Papa Roach.

The $100-million sale of the DreamWorks label to Vivendi Universal, orchestrated by DreamWorks SKG partner David Geffen, and subsequent folding of the company into the Interscope family, is seen as the end of one of the last free-standing outposts of the kind of music business philosophy that ruled in the hallowed ‘70s. With former Epic Records President Polly Anthony set to take the reins, DreamWorks joins Geffen Records and A&M; Records, two other formerly autonomous companies, under the Vivendi Universal umbrella.

But there’s optimism as well, especially among those who were competing against deep-pocketed DreamWorks to sign acts. Several executives at rival companies spoke of the move as leveling the playing field, especially for under-the-radar artists.

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“From my point of view, the nature of A&R; inclinations at DreamWorks coincides with mine,” says Warner Bros. Senior Vice President of A&R; Perry Watts-Russell. “The tastes won’t change. The question is whether there will be more constraints on them now .... But with acts that are perhaps less immediate hit-oriented, ones who are perceived as more development artists, with DreamWorks out of the equation, you’re probably not going to have as much bidding for those artists.”

Music attorney Eric Greenspan, whose clients include Papa Roach and DreamWorks band Lifehouse, says it’s hard to understate the role DreamWorks played in shaping the music business in recent years.

If DreamWorks had gone out of business, as many had been feared, it might have had “a greater chilling effect on our business than even if EMI merged with Warner Bros.,” he says. “They may still be active, it’s too early to predict. But if DreamWorks were out, it would be a chilling effect.”

Not so fast, says Interscope Geffen A&M; Records Group Chairman Jimmy Iovine, emphasizing that DreamWorks’ talent scout staff, including Luke Wood (who signed Smith and rock bands Jimmy Eat World and AFI) and Beth Halper (who signed Furtado), is being retained. (Ostin is expected to retire; it’s not known where Waronker will go.)

“We’re leaving the [DreamWorks] A&R; team completely intact,” he says. “They’ll sign, as anybody with my companies, whatever they truly believe in. They have a jewel box of creativity there that we will try to leave undisturbed.”

Iovine said the size of contracts being offered new acts is down across the board in the music world and that he expects responsible spending from DreamWorks. He pledged that the company would remain as strong a player as it has been when it comes to deal-making. And he even joked about his own reputation for spending whatever it takes to sign someone he wants.

“Interscope hasn’t exactly been ...,” he said, laughing instead of finishing the sentence. “You know what I mean?”

Looking for clues to Smith’s death

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A recent Los Angeles County Coroner’s report saying it’s not certain that Elliott Smith’s fatal knife wounds were self-inflicted (as originally reported) leaves some doubt about the circumstances of the singer-songwriter’s November death. But Smith’s life is coming under closer examination in a planned biography targeted for publication this year on the one-year anniversary of his passing.

Music journalist Benjamin Nugent has signed with Da Capo Press to write the tentatively titled “Elliott Smith and the Big Nothing,” tracing the 34-year-old musician’s story.

“It never occurred to me to write [this] while he was living,” says Nugent, a former Time Magazine music writer who now is a freelance journalist. “He was young, still at work on an album, not at a time to look back on his youthful legacy. But after his passing, it became clear it was now possible to look back and see a musical legacy that had a certain impact on rock’s current renaissance.”

Nugent never interviewed Smith but followed his career as a fan long before Smith’s Academy Award nomination for writing “Miss Misery” for the 1997 movie “Good Will Hunting.”

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Nugent lived in Portland, Ore., in the early and mid-'90s when Smith was a rising local star, a low-key presence when louder grunge was ruling the Northwest rock scene. Nugent also spent time living in L.A.'s Silver Lake neighborhood, where Smith was based in his last years. He will be interviewing everyone from childhood friends to such high-profile colleagues and supporters as Beck.

In the course of the research he hopes to shed light on the sadness that marked Smith’s touching songs and may be behind what, despite the coroner’s uncertainty, is generally believed to be a suicide.

“I’m going to look for that answer,” Nugent says. “I’m hoping in the course of learning more about what was going on in his life to learn about the forces that appear to have made him so sad.”

Small faces

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* A major portion of the Tom Petty catalog will be available Tuesday for legal digital download for the first time via the new Napster service for two weeks before being on competing services. This covers the eight Petty and the Heartbreakers’ albums carried by Universal Music (originally on MCA Records), from 1979’s blockbuster “Damn the Torpedoes” through 1991’s “Into the Great Wide Open,” plus the 1995 box set “Playback” and the 2000 “Anthology: Through the Years” collection. Petty’s Warner Bros. Records roster (which now includes his first two albums originally released by Shelter Records) and his four most recent albums already are available online. Napster charges 99 cents a track, or $9.95 for a complete single-disc album.

* The Subdudes have reunited for the group’s first album in eight years. The as-yet-untitled album is due April 20 from Virgin Music’s Back Porch Records and features the rootsy group’s founding members Tommy Malone, Steve Amadee and John Magnie. There are plans for spring performances at the South By Southwest conference in Austin, Texas, and at the Jazz & Heritage Festival in New Orleans, the hometown of most of the band’s members.


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